The (third) way | February 19

Text: Matthew 5:38-48

If and when word gets out that you’re a pacifist, or that you’re committed to nonviolence , you will no doubt, at some point, encounter questions like these:  What would you do if someone broke into your home and attacked a family member?  If we have another 9/11 should we all just turn the other cheek?  And what about Hitler?  If we were all pacifists, Hitler would have won and Nazism would have taken over the world.  Sound familiar?

These questions carry certain assumptions about what it means to live nonviolently.  They may be asked out of genuine curiosity – like, really, how would it work?  I’m interested.  Or they may be intended to make peaceableness appear weak, ineffective, intellectually ridiculous, and just downright impossible, even immoral.  After all, what kind of person would just stand by and do nothing while someone they loved was being harmed?  Perhaps you’ve been asked questions like these in conversations where you’ve “come out” as being against violence.  Perhaps you’ve asked questions like these to yourself, wondering if nonviolence is a path you are able to take with integrity.

It would be hard to overemphasize how key to this discussion are Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5:38-48.  Packed into this short passage are the core principles of Christian pacifism.  And just as an aside, you may already notice that I’m using some language interchangeably so as not to get hung up on “pacifism” as a rigid ideology.  Nonviolence.  Peaceableness.  A newer field of thought talks about Just Peacemaking.  Within this core teaching are also phrases often used as weapons against pacifist understandings to prove their impracticality.  It’s a passage Mennonites, more than most streams of Christian tradition, have tried to live out.  Although since I said something good about Mennonites I have to follow it up with the more humble and self-deprecating observation that we have also used this text in harmful ways.  I’ll give an example in a bit.

Today’s teachings follow the text Mark preached on last week.  Jesus is offering concrete illustrations of how scripture might be fulfilled, of what the God-ward trajectory of shalom, holistic well-being, might look like.  This section includes the final two of those “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” lines from Jesus

Verse 38 begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”  Gandhi had his own observation on this by famously saying, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”  As harsh as the ancient measure sounds in its tit for tat demands, it’s likely that this law was initially intended as a limitation of violence.  In a world where a wrong done against a family member or tribe called for seven-fold, or hundred fold vengeance against the offending party, defining justice as a one for one exchange would be a major step in stopping the escalation of violence.  An eye for an eye – No more!  But even this, Jesus teaches, does not break the cycle of violence.

How one translates the next words goes a long way in how one understands the thrust of Jesus’ teaching.  The NRSV says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.”  If one takes this translation choice, which, nearly all English translations have done, we are taught that an evildoer should not be resisted.  In other words, pacifism as a passive act.  Faithfulness as nonresistance, whatever the harm may be.  Nonresistance became the main interpretative emphasis of North American Mennonites in the 20th century – and here’s that example.  This interpretation led many Mennonite leaders to not join or support the Civil Rights movement because it involved too much active and assertive and public resisting.  “Do not resist an evildoer.”  Full stop.  Nonresistance.

Fortunately there has been some important scholarship and thinking to help us now resist that interpretation.

When the word translated “resist” shows up in other literature, including the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, it is frequently used as a military term.  To resist violently.  To resist with lethal force.  Some better ways of wording this remark from Jesus could be, “Do not violently resist an evildoer.” Or, “Do not resist an evildoer in such a way as to perpetuate harm.”  Or, more concise: “Do not mirror evil.”  The apostle Paul gets at this idea in Romans 12 when he says “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Don’t respond to violence in kind.  Don’t let violence limit the options from which you respond.  Resist with good.

This one shift of translation in Jesus’ words changes the entire tone of the teaching and is more in line with the transforming initiatives that follow.  Rather than passively accepting one’s fate, Jesus gives different examples, specific to that time and culture, of how one might transform a situation without causing harm to the other person.

This is what we had some fun with during the children’s time with turn the other cheek, give the second garment, and go the extra mile.  The two additional teachings, “Give to the one who begs,” and “”Don’t refuse the one who wants to borrow,” are examples of the disciple being the one in the position of power.  But in those first three, the disciple has less power – a familiar arrangement for this open air congregation of Jewish peasants living in Roman occupied Palestine.

Rather than being instances of allowing the other person to express abusive power unchecked, Jesus presents his listeners with examples of transforming a situation by doing an unexpected act – asserting one’s dignity as a human being, calling on the other person to recognize one’s humanity.  Although there’s no guarantee it will “work,” it has the effect of actively disrupting the oppressor/oppressed relationship.  It provides opportunity for something new to emerge.

Here’s a 21st century story of this in action.  It comes from a friend, Jeremy Garber, and was included in an article he wrote a number of years ago:

Jeremy and his friends frequented a restaurant that had hired a new security guard who seemed to especially enjoy his power.  He would “use his taser on the metal edge of the serving counter and snap at people for putting their feet on the scuffed plastic tables, just to prove he was in charge and had the weapons to back it up.”

One day the guard was sitting, leaned back in his seat, feet up on a table.  One of Jeremy’s friends, Paul, being a fair minded person, thought he would hold the guard accountable to his own standards so went up to him and said, “You really shouldn’t yell at people to keep their feet off the table and then do it yourself. It sets a poor example.”

Jeremy writes: “The guard drew his loaded handgun from his holster and set it on the table. He responded with menace in his voice, ‘That’s why I get to do what I want.’”

So Paul had some options.  He could have done something that might have escalated the violence, he could have made a logical argument against gun violence, he could have walked out….

But instead Paul did something that neither Jeremy nor the guard expected.  He reached back to the counter, grabbed a plastic spork, and in a mock-menacing voice said, “Well, I have a spork.” And then Jeremy writes this.  “The guard, disarmed by Paul’s humor, laughed, put the gun back in his holster and took his feet down off the table. The entire restaurant breathed a sigh of relief, and (our group of friends) bought Paul’s meal in celebration of his creative response.”  (All quotes taken from article, A Spork in the Road, from The Mennonite, pp. 12-14, November 16, 2004 issue)

A way Anabaptists have come to talk about such transforming action is a “third way.”  The primary two options we often see as available to us are deeply engrained in our evolutionary biology.  Fight or flight.  We can engage with all the strength and force we’re capable of, knowing that one or both parties are going to lose – fight; or we can turn and run, leave the situation and concede power to the other – flight.  We now know that these responses are embedded in the oldest part of our brains, near the brain stem, sometimes called the “reptilian brain.”  They are responses the animal kingdom developed for survival, so we can be grateful to them in many ways.  They are there as options, but they are not the only responses available to us, and this thing called the prefontal cortex enables us to tap into another level of consciousness.

Jesus, and other great spiritual leaders, suggest we can rise above our reptilian inheritance and consider third ways.  Whether it be asserting one’s dignity, as in the case of turning the other cheek.  Or publicly exposing the injustice and unfairness of a situation, as in the case of giving the second garment (quite literally exposing), or whether it be using the just laws of the land in one’s own favor, as is the case of going the extra mile.  Or, to misquote Yogi Berra, when you come to a spork in the road, take it.

So, we might suggest something like this for those opening scenarios:  If foreign terrorists attack your country, go on a school building rampage all over the lands they come from.  If someone breaks into your house while you’re home, ask them what they need and if you can help them find it.  Regarding Hitler – Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that if enough of the population of the pre-dominantly Christian nation of Germany would have also put on those armbands with yellow stars, in solidarity with Jews, it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, for the Nazi forces to isolate, round up, and execute the Jews.

All these responses are highly contextual, and, again, they are never guaranteed to work.  They may be different for men and women.  There may be times when flight is by far the best option.  Sometimes a wise use of strength and force may be what is needed to protect innocent life.  And I don’t know this for sure, but I’m guessing Jeremy’s friend Paul was white.  Had he been a young man of color, reaching back for an unknown object may be one of the most life-endangering things he could have done.

All this to say that this is not a new legalism, but a new way of thinking and acting.  It’s vitality important that we elevate these stories to invigorate our imaginations.  So I am officially opening a Third Way Thinking file on my computer that I would love to populate with stories from your lives.  Not stories about King or Gandhi, but everyday stories, either about something you did, or something you observed, even an online exchange.  I’d like to collect these, and will find a way to share them down the road.  Here’s another example, very simple, that I remember from someone in the Cincinnati congregation where I pastored before.  I’ll call her Cindy.  Cindy had two school aged children and another mother would frequently say negative things about Cindy’s children to Cindy.  So she decided every time this happened, she would give a compliment to that mother’s children.  Miraculously, the insults soon stopped and the relationship improved.  I anxiously await your stories, this week, or half a year from now.  I’ll keep the file open.

But we’re not done quite yet with this passage.

After giving some examples of ways of resisting harm without mirroring it, Jesus goes nuclear, or un-nuclear, dropping the ultimate peace bomb, one of his most radical teachings, the final “You have heard that it was said.”  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I say to you, ‘Love… your…enemies.’”  Just when we thought we were getting the hang of this…  All of those transforming initiatives and creative, witty responses are overshadowed by these words: “Love your enemies.”  The point is not to win.  Love, it seems, is its own point.  Its own end.  As the scriptures say elsewhere, love is the ultimate fulfillment of the law.

Booker T. Washington once said, “Don’t ever let them pull you down so low as to hate them.” (don’t know reference).

In a polarized climate, Loving your enemies can feel like a betrayal of one’s tribe.  Like, how could you?  Especially when the enemies are actively harming you and/or people you love and/or vulnerable people.  How could you?  How could you?  It likely has something to do with the difference between loving and liking.  We don’t have to like our enemies, at least not yet.  But love, in this context, has less to do with feeling, and more to do with concrete ways that we relate to one another.

And there’s always that closest of all enemies, our own inner violence and tendency to project our own pathologies onto other people.  If we look with any kind of honesty at all, we will find plenty of violence within us.  We are our own enemies.  But Love your enemies.  Love is the fountain of all transformation.  Love is so close to that Reality we call God that the letter of 1 John goes right ahead and says “God is love.”  Christ is love.  Christ in us, which is so much more than just us trying to be good.  It is the life of God at work within us.  We too are the ones in need of transformation.

We may not always be so quick on our feet as to grab the nearest spork when someone whips out a gun, but we can prepare ourselves to love.  Love of enemies is the ultimate third way.

“So that you may be children of your Father/Mother in heaven,” Jesus says, “who makes sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

This is the entire shape of the gospel.  In Jesus’ ultimate confrontation with evil, his execution on a Roman cross, he resists with transcendent love.  Violence depends on others internalizing the violence inflicted on them and passing it along to others.  It feeds on itself, as it cycles and snowballs through history.  Jesus triumphs over evil by refusing to mirror its ways, by transforming it in his person into relationship-restoring, resurrected love.  And what he passes on to those ready to receive it is the Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, and peace.  Evil has been defeated because it has been halted in its tracks, and a better way is opened up to us.  Call it a third way.  Or just call it The Way.  The love of God, triumphant, recklessly pouring itself out on the righteous and unrighteous.

101 | February 5

Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Tuesday evening this space was full to overflowing for a teach-in led by the Central Ohio Worker Center.  The event was called Sanctuary for Immigrants 101: Theory, Data, and Action.  It was kind of a rally, but moreso a class.  It was designed to teach the basics of how the immigration system functions in the United States, how it’s changed especially over the last 15 years, the relationship between federal departments and local law enforcement, and how cities like Columbus fit into the mix these days.  Mark blogged about this Wednesday and included a link to the power point that Austin Kocher presented.

I think the genius of the event was that it was both a timely response to a very specific situation, and a deeper look at a decades old system.  It was a 101 class.  It was an introduction, a foundation, a teaching of basic concepts.  Personally, I left feeling more grounded, with a better sense of history, and community.

By way of holy coincidence, during the month of February, 2017, the lectionary is gifting us with another kind of 101 class.  The texts throughout the month come from the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, otherwise known as the Sermon on the Mount.  This solid block of teaching from Jesus was one of the most valued guides for the early church.  It was one of the most often cited passages among our spiritual ancestors, the 16th century Anabaptists and Mennonites.  In other words, if there’s such a thing as Christianity 101, or Discipleship 101, or If- you- want- to- follow- Jesus- you- should- really- pay- attention- to- this 101, it is the Sermon on the Mount.

And so, the four weeks of February, the remaining Sundays before the season of Lent, we will be focusing on parts of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hopefully it serves to further ground us in the ancient words and teachings of the church, even as we listen for what this present moment might be asking of us.

Each of the gospels organize their material a little differently in order to communicate to their original audience, and one of the important things to know about Matthew’s gospel is that it separates Jesus’ teaching into five major blocks.  The Sermon on the Mount is the first and longest of these five blocks.  The second major block is in chapter 10, then another in 13, another in chapter 18, and then the final block in chapters 24 and 25.

For a mostly Jewish audience, five blocks of teaching would have had immediate symbolic connection to the Teaching.  The Torah.  The five books of Moses that provided the foundation of Jewish life.  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.   To suggest that what this teacher from Nazareth had to say was on level with the teaching of Moses would have been quite a claim.

The Sermon on the Mount readings actually started last Sunday with the Beatitudes when we had our Coming of Age service focused on Esther, so now it’s kind of like we’re walking into the 101 teach-in after it already started.  We missed the opening session.  Traffic was bad, and you had to drive around looking for parking.  You finally find a spot, walk briskly toward and into the building.  You slip in the back, find one of the few remaining seats, hoping you didn’t miss anything important.

“You are the salt of earth” is the first thing you hear, and the speaker is looking right at you.

Me?  I am the salt of the earth?  I think have missed something important.

The You is plural, the speaker clarifies, but Yes, it includes you.  You are the salt of the earth.  You all are the salt of the earth.  Ya’ll.

Salt, as in that substance which the Romans believed to be the purest and most useful of all things, product of sun and sea.  A gift of the gods and so offered up to the gods, the most primitive and elemental of offerings.  Your life is gifted to you, product of sun and sea, fruit of love and longing, and so your life becomes a gift to the world.  Salt.  You.  Your life, an offering.

You all are the salt of the earth.

Salt, as in that most common of substances used for preservation.  The world has not always known refrigeration, you know.  And the world’s tendency toward decay, toward decomposition, toward slowly coming undone, bonds of relationships loosening and dissipating.  That inclination is met with salt.  Salt gives us more time.  Salt extends viability.  It preserves the good.  You.  Salt.  Your life, an agent of preservation.

You all are the salt of the earth.

Salt, as in flavor.  Our foods are so permeated with salt it’s easy to forget it’s been added in there.  It tastes better with salt.  Salt not only preserves the good, it accentuates the good.  It adds enjoyment, pleasure, it deepens the quality.  Not too much now, don’t overdo it.  It’s not all about our salty selves.  You, your life, is a sprinkling, here and there.  That’s enough.  A sprinkling that accentuates the good.

You all, collectively, are the salt of the earth:  An offering, preserving goodness, flavoring life on earth.

And not only that.  The speaker goes on.

You are the light of the world.  Again, the you is plural, and it is a collective reality.

It’s one of those statements that automatically becomes untrue if the person or group claims it for themselves.

“We are the light of the world.”  “I am the light of the world.”  If it’s the ego making this claim, it comes to represent the exact opposite reality.  It becomes colonial.  We are the light of the world and must therefore take this light into all the dark and backwards places of the earth.

But it’s different when the claim is made by an authoritative voice speaking to you.  “You are the light of the world.”  Like a reminder of a truth easily forgotten.  Jogging our memory, reminding us that although we are not the source of the light, we contain the light.  Our bodies composed of those ancient elements, fused in the cores of distant stars.  Fusion’s byproduct is light.  Those sacrificial stars gone supernova long ago, offering their creations to world.  The cosmos salted with stardust.  The periodic table drifting through space.  The elements, longing with attraction, find each other, come together, make a home together, join and evolve over an unimaginable stretch of time.  We are one of the forms to emerge from this light infused process.  It is preserved in our bodies.  Your existence is a testimony to sacrifice and love and miracle.

You are the light of the world and there is no hiding.  In fact, the speaker is now saying that the light must be public, radically visible.  “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others.”

You are the light of the world, and that light is brilliantly, publicly, visible, but there is a part of us that must disappear in order for that to be true.  It’s the part that serves only the self.  The part that either has an overblown sense of itself of being the light, or, equally destructive, the part that will not believe it contains any light at all.  The part that denies the Divine miracle that has birthed it and so becomes confined.

You are the light of the world.  And Lord knows the world needs light.

This is Discipleship 101.  Salt and Light.  It’s basic stuff.  Profound in its simplicity.

Rather than being asked to do anything yet, it appears we’re being asked to be.  Or even simpler than that, we’re being asked to acknowledge who we are already are – the grace that has already been given us.  It’s not “You should do salty things,” or “You need to go illuminate something.”  Rather, we are given statements of being, reminding us who we are.  You are salt.  You are light.  The doing flows out of the being.  Settle into the being, and the doing will flow naturally.

Meanwhile, the speaker has moved on.

It’s sounding a little more archaic now.  He’s shifted to talking about those uniquely Jewish documents known as the law and the prophets.  Moses and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and so on and so on.  Those Scriptures we’re frequently unsure what to do with.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.”  He goes on about the value of even the tiniest notation of those ancient scriptures, the jots and the tittles of the scribes.  He’s talking about carrying out the old commandments.  How whoever does them and teaches others to do the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  Surely he can’t mean all the commands of the law.

Maybe this part doesn’t apply to us as much.  Might be a good time to sneak out for a restroom break and hope our neighbor saves our seat.

Besides, we were kind of hoping for a repeal and replace approach to what we call the “Old Testament.”  Can’t these five blocks of teaching in Matthew just take the place of those five books of Moses?  We’re the new wave.  The big tent of Jews and Gentiles.  The new coaltion that’s more chill about all those rules.

But the speaker can’t seem to let it go.  Can’t just move on and start something new.  “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”

I confess to personally having tendencies toward wanting to abolish.  My beef isn’t so much with ancient Judaism, but there are times when I wonder why we don’t just abolish the whole Christian project.  Or at least disassociate and try a new name.  So much baggage and harm done with that name.  I remember a visiting professor at seminary from the UK who talked about a group he knew who wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus but didn’t want to have any connections to the pitfalls of the Christian church.  Since they recognized the Sermon on the Mount was the core of Jesus’ teaching, they decided to call themselves the Mounties.

I confess I struggle mightily with some of the stances of the national Mennonite Church.  Its hesitance to address matters of racism.  It unwillingness to affirm the gifts of LGBT folks.   Can’t we just abolish the law?  Can’t we just be the Mounties?  Or just Humans?

The teacher has an alternative suggestion.  Rather than abolish, the teacher draws our attention toward fulfillment.  Toward living out the aim of the tradition.  Fulfillment.  Staying on the trajectory and being a part of the arc for where all this is headed.  Fulfilling the best intentions and best aspirations of the law and prophets, and gospels, the church teachings, and maybe even the Mennonite Confession of Faith.

It’s a salty move by the teacher.

To find and preserve the good that’s there from the beginning.  Salt, just by being salt, has the capacity to preserve that which is good.  To give us more time with what we’ve inherited.  To flavor the batch.  For example, protecting the immigrant and sojourner in your midst is one of the most repeated themes throughout the Torah.  That’s about as old and conservative a value you can find.

Those are a few of the opening ideas of Discipleship 101.  Salt, Light, Not abolish, but fulfill.

The speaker has plenty more to say.  It appears he’s just getting started.  Settle in.  Get comfortable with your neighbor.  There’s more to come.

Finding your voice: your No and your Yes | Coming of Age | January 29

Text: Esther

When do you stop being a child and start being something else?

It’s a question cultures around the world have found important to answer.  Throughout time, human groups have created practices and rituals to mark that otherwise fuzzy boundary between childhood and adulthood.  And it’s done for the benefit of the young person and the community.  We need to know together that the child has become something else.  Childhood was a time of dependence, of protection and growth under the careful and loving watch of family.  Adulthood is a time of independence, increased responsibility and leadership, a time when one will ultimately grow into being a protector, a caring presence for the following generations.

Our culture has developed a third category of development between childhood and adulthood.  Adolescence.  It’s a period of tremendous growth and formation when you are no longer a child, yet not quite an adult.  So the question for us remains: when do you stop being a child, and start being something else?

Our congregation has created its own Coming of Age ritual to mark this transition out of childhood.   We’re in the middle of it right now.  This year we honor the Coming of Age of Elise, Gideon, Stella, and Dakota.  We’ve been preparing for this.  You helped create parts of the service.  A number of us have written blessings and naming of gifts for you.  Those have been compiled in notebooks that you’ll soon receive.  You’ve been matched with a mentor who will walk with you in the upcoming years.

Our hope is that you can experience today as a marker in your life.  A boundary marker.  On one side of the boundary is childhood.  Today we celebrate your cross over into adolescence.

As people of faith who value the role of community, we recommit ourselves to being the kind of community in which your God-given gifts and personhood can flourish.  That is our hope for you and for ourselves.

And so – Elise, Gideon, Stella, and Dakota – here we are.  When we met together three weeks ago we talked about how we shape our worship services around scripture.  I gave you a couple different options for the scripture that you would like to shape this service – to place your own experience within the broader story of the Bible.  You chose the story of Vashti and Esther.

So for starters, something we didn’t talk about when we studied this.  Esther is a book in our Bible, but there is a character who regularly shows up throughout the Bible who isn’t in Esther.  Doesn’t have a speaking part, isn’t even mentioned.  That character is:  God.  Interestingly enough, the book of Esther doesn’t mention God.  This maybe seems like a basic criterion for making it into the Bible, but that’s not the case.  This suggests it is possible to tell a holy story, a story that gives us wisdom and insight, without mentioning the name of God.  Or, here’s another way to think about it:  Since God doesn’t have a speaking part, who will be God’s voice?  Who will act on God’s behalf?  Who, in the story, represents the ways of God?  That’s an open question that makes this story all the more interesting.  It’s a question that makes our own lives more interesting.

We’ve already talked about this story together, but I’m going to review it just to bring the rest of these folks here up to speed.

Esther, I believe, is best read as a comedy.  It’s full of exaggeration and hyperbole.  It pokes fun at power, especially a certain mold of manhood that takes itself, and its importance, way too seriously.  Feminists have seen Esther as a proto-feminist novel, with a message that helps both women and men be truer to our best selves.

The story takes place several centuries before Christ – so Jesus isn’t mentioned either! – during the reign of the Persian Empire.  It’s set in one of the major cities of the Persians, Susa, where numerous Jews lived.  The opening verses of Esther introduce us to a King – King Ahasuerus, the most powerful man in the world, who rules over 127 provinces, ranging from India, to Ethiopia – lots of territory.  He is sitting on his royal throne, and he decides to throw a royal party.  A very big party.  A very long party.  180 days.  A half year party, during which he displays the great wealth of his kingdom.  Impressive.

When this half year party is over, the king decides that he kind of feels like… having a party, and throws a banquet for everyone in the city, lasting seven days.  A week long afterparty.  The next bit goes into details describing the elegant décor and furniture.  White curtains, marble pillars, couches made out of gold, and drinks served in gold goblets and the one rule about drinking was that there were no rules.  “Drink to your heart’s content,” the king orders.  The king, and all the king’s friends,  follow this rule very well.  They get everything their hearts desire.  Impressive.

On the seventh day, the king is feeling fantastic.  He’s in charge of the known world, has partied non stop for over half a year, has indulged in everything his heart desires, and now wants one more thing to make this the perfect ending to the perfect party.  He commands his seven attendants, not just one attendant, but his seven attendants to go, bring Queen Vashti all decked out in the royal crown, and have her come parade her beauty to all the peoples.  A perfect ending to the perfect party.

But here’s the problem, and here’s where all that merry-making screeches to a halt.  Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.

Vashti refused.  Refused to obey this king who always gets exactly what he wants.  Refused to come dance in front of all his highly intoxicated buddies.

Queen Vashti said No.

The king is not impressed.  The king is enraged.  The king doesn’t know what to say or do.  He needs his legal advisors.  This is an outrage, this is despicable, this is surely…illegal.  “Oh yes,” assure his advisors.  “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.”   If other women find out about this, they’re going to feel like they don’t have to do everything their husbands tell them to do.  It could be chaos.  This is a national security threat.  We’ve got to do something.  So, the king and his advisors send letters to all the provinces, from India to Ethiopia, written in everyone’s native language, “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”  That ought to solve it.

That’s the end of chapter one.  And that’s pretty much the end of Vashti, as far as this story is concerned.  She is dethroned, fired from queenship, and banished.

And all we really know about Vashti from this story is that, she said No.  She refused.

I asked you if you thought Vashti was a hero or a villain.  You said she was a hero.  You also noted that she would be seen as a villain by some, like the king.

The cool part about the first chapter of Esther is that it uses over-the-top satire to mock the kind of abusive power, prevalent throughout so much of history.  The kind of power which is so threatened when someone refuses to go along.  The sad part of this, is that for most of history, people haven’t gotten the joke.  Vashti has often been portrayed as a villain – assuming that the king was the good guy, and mysterious Vashti, was the bad woman.  So does the king speak for God, or might God be represented in the voice of Vashti?

In 1878 Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s disobedience the “first stand for woman’s rights.” (1878). (Bible heroines: being narrative biographies of prominent Hebrew women in the patriarchal, national, and Christian eras, giving views of women in sacred history, as revealed in the light of the present day. Fords, Howard, & Hulbert. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.)

A few years later, in 1895 Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti “added new glory to [her] day and generation…by her disobedience; for “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.” (1895). (The woman’s Bible: a classic feminist perspective. European Pub Co. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.)

One of the wonderful gifts of growing up, of entering adolescence and adulthood, is that you start to find your voice.  You listen to the voices of others, you learn from what others have said and done.  And, as you do this, your own voice starts to emerge – your own convictions and perspective, and the unique gifts that you have to bring to the world.  And one part of that voice, is finding your No.  Of all the things happening in this world, around you, in your lifetime, what are you going to say No to?  What are you going to refuse to go along with?

When you say No, you are in good company.  The banished queen Vashti smiles on you.  Your No in a situation of injustice or harmfulness could very well be the voice of God being expressed through you.

But there’s another important player in this story.  There is a vacancy in the queen department, and someone is going to have to fill it.  As it turns out, the next queen is a Jew, Esther, although the all-power, all-knowing king doesn’t know she is a Jew.

Esther takes a different path than Vashti, and we’re most likely more familiar with her part of the story.  She becomes one of the many young women in the king’s harem, his company of sexually available women.  Esther and these other women follow all the rules of proper cosmetic treatments and diet and dress, at the king’s command for his own pleasure.  And when it’s Esther’s night to be in bed with the king, the story says that “the king loved Esther more than all the other women…so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.”  Congratulations Esther.  And to celebrate?  The king throws a party.

The king “loved” Esther.  Esther isn’t like Vashti.  Esther is different.  Esther does what she’s told.  The King “loved” Esther, but we’re not told about Esther’s thoughts or feelings at this point.  Maybe she despised this role she was forced into.  Maybe she felt honored, chosen, and would have been content to be in that situation the rest of her life.  What we do know is that, for better or worse, she found herself in a position of power and influence, and she was presented with a situation where she would have to make a decision that would affect not just her life, but the life of her people.

A high ranking official in the king’s court, Haman, had a big enough ego that he felt everyone should bow down to him and when Mordecai the Jew does not bow to him, Haman convinces the king to destroy all the Jews.

Mordecai hears of this, and does the one thing he thinks can reverse the situation.  He pleads with Esther to risk her own life in order to save the lives of her people.  And his plea includes that key phrase which brings it all into focus: “Who knows?” Mordecai says to Esther.  “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”  For such a time as this.

Esther did not ask to be put in this situation, but it has come to her and she has a decision to make.  It was up to Vashti to say No, and it is up to Esther to say Yes, at such a time as this.  And she does.  And she’s pretty savvy about it.  By now she’s figured out that this king likes parties, so she’s sure to have a couple big banquets for him before she reveals her Jewish identity and her demand that her people be saved. Esther’s Yes ends up saving her people, and opening the king’s eyes to the plots of Haman.

Throughout childhood you have a lot of decisions made for you.  You’re going to eat this for supper.  You’re going to go to bed at this time.  No, you can’t have that.  Yes, we are going to church this morning.  Some of those things might not change much while you’re still living with your parents.  But as you cross the threshold into adolescence you are starting to find your own No and your own Yes.  What will you resist and not go along with?  What will you pursue?

One of the signs of moving from childhood to something else, is that you start making decisions not just on the basis of how they affect you personally, but how they affect those around you.  Those 19th century American women felt that Vashti had said No not just for herself, but for them as well.  Esther says Yes on behalf of an entire people, and on behalf of us, women and men.

It’s hard to find your Yes, and may never be perfectly clear.  But when you find your Yes, it will not just be your Yes, but it will be the Yes of God expressing itself through you.  You will become God’s hands and feet in situations where God’s name may not even be mentioned, but where God’s presence is experienced through you.

As your church, we believe that each of you is a gift from God, and that you each are being given a voice.  We will be beside you to help you find that voice.  And although only you can determine your own No and your own Yes, we pray with you that you will never need to be alone in living out either one.  Even though you may still feel like a child sometimes, you are now also something else.  We honor you and welcome you across that boundary.

Abiding | CDC Sunday | January 15


Text: John 15:1-12

At a young age we’re taught about the five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.  We’ve come to speak of a sixth sense as intuitive perceptions, intuition.  There was also a pretty good movie called “The Sixth Sense” way back in 1999.  It had a surprise twist at the ending that my dull sixth sense wasn’t expecting the first time I saw it.  Although I was expecting it the second time.

Joshua Cooper Ramo is now proposing a seventh sense, essential for survival in our time.  Last year he wrote a book called The Seventh Sense.  The catchy subtitle is “Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks.”  In an increasingly networked and interconnected world, Ramo suggests that a seventh sense is “the ability to look at any object and see the way it is changed by connection.” (Quoted HERE)  That’s the seventh sense.  Sensing, perceiving the web of relationships embedded in everything and everyone we come into contact with.  Ramo is especially interested in how this applies on the global scale to politics, terrorist cells, networks of trade and finance, and, of course, how technology and social networking change the dynamics of power and the ability to spread ideas and organize.

I’ve only read a couple reviews and summaries of the book and not the book itself, so can’t say a whole lot more about it.  But I imagine that if each of us were to exercise our seventh sense when it comes to something as simple as the clothes we’re wearing this morning, we would be mindful of where the cotton in our shirts might have been grown, the engineers and firms that designed the machines that separated the useable parts of the plant, where in the world and under what conditions the shirt was designed, sewn, and packaged, and found its way through the supply chain to the store where we bought it.  An especially keen seventh sense would go even deeper and wider to consider the broad economic policies and political climates that make such production what it is, the amount of fossil fuel and renewal energy embedded in that shirt, the extended networks of relationships of each person who had something to do with its creation.  Who either benefited or was harmed by the process.  And how one change in that massive network – a disruption or an improvement – has ripple effects throughout.

Exercising the seventh sense sounds both exhausting and exhilarating.  The “ability to look at any object and see the way it is changed by connection.”  If we have no seventh sense, one could make a pretty convincing argument that we are blind to a significant dimension of reality.

For the purposes of this morning, we might try exercising our seventh sense on ourselves as a congregation.  The shirts on our backs are one small example of the way we are embedded in networks of relationships, many of them imperceptible to our other senses.  Very specifically, this morning, we have been invited by our regional church conference, Central District Conference, CDC, to see the way we are changed by our connection to this conference, which ultimately serves to connect us to the life of Christ and the mission of the gospel in the world.  All 40 some CDC congregations have been invited to have a CDC Sunday this winter.

A biblical seventh sense kind of word is “Abiding.”  It’s one of those words in the CDC theme and Patty Shelly’s song, “Abounding in love, abiding in grace.”  It shows up frequently in John 15, the passage for CDC Sunday this year.  To abide in something is have a living relationship with that thing, to be changed by the connection, and to have an organic relationship with other similarly abiding things.

John’s gospel doesn’t have parables the same way that Matthew, Mark, and Luke do.  But John does love the extended metaphor, especially with the various I AM statements Jesus makes.  In John Jesus says thing like “I am the bread of life.”  “I am the light of the world.”  “I am the good shepherd that watches the sheep, and I am the gate that keeps the sheep safe.”  “I am the resurrection.”  “I am the way.”  “I am” evokes the Divine name revealed to the Hebrews, Yahweh, which, roughly translated, means something like “I am who I am.”  The “I” that Jesus identifies with goes beyond the ego self of Jesus of Nazareth and speaks of the Divine reality in which he participated, in which he invited all of humanity to consciously participate.

In John 15 Jesus says “I am the vine.”

Vines can be a nuisance, but the vine to which Jesus likens himself is not a wild vine, but a cultivated vine.  For people living in a dry climate, the vine represented the necessary partnership between the human and natural worlds, cultivated for one main purpose.  To bear fruit.  Life-giving fruit.  In the Hebrew scriptures the phrase “living under your own vine and fig tree” was a way of expressing security and safety.  If you’ve got a vine, you’ve got what you need.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus taught.  “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…As the Divine parent has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

Christ is the vine running through the center, we the branches.  Mutually abiding in one another.  Abiding in love.

If we do nothing else on Sunday mornings, we remind ourselves that it is only through abiding in love that we are sustained in all of our other connections and networks of relationships.  And that we ourselves are not the Source of that love.  We, like branches, abide in the vine of love, and thus have life.

I’m fully aware that the majority of us gathered here do not relate regularly with CDC.  Unless you have a highly developed seventh sense you likely do not think about CDC on a weekly basis.  For many folks, your first association with CDC isn’t church related at all, but the Center for Disease Control.  But this network of congregations and the way we do church together is very much a part of what supports us.  I won’t go so far as saying that CDC is the vine are we are the branches.  We’ll let Jesus keep that metaphor.  But, to extend the metaphor, CDC is very much like a trellis.  It gives structure and support to this group of congregations on the world wide Christ vine.

We had a unique chance this past summer to see who else is growing on the trellis with us as we hosted the CDC annual meeting.  During our business and teaching sessions we met in our summer home away from home, the basement fellowship hall of North Broadway United Methodist Church.  Palestinian pastor Alex Awad talked with us about the plight of Palestinian Christians and the situation on the ground in Palestine and Israel.  We heard stories from different congregations about how they were being a light in their own communities.  We also said farewell to our conference minister Lois Johns Kaufmann, thanked her for her faithful work, and blessed her in her retirement.

The gathering was also a time for CMC to share some of our flavor with CDC.  The Piecemakers had their comforters draped over the benches throughout the three worship sessions.  One of the most memorable events from all the CDC gatherings I’ve been a part of happened at the end of the Thursday night opening worship session when Mark preached.  Before the service began he had asked me to turn off the lights on his cue at the end of the sermon.  As the sermon was wrapping up Mark reached into the shelf of the lectern and pulled out a disco ball.  I dimmed the lights, and opening worship suddenly transformed into a dance party.  It’s a testimony to the spirit of CDC that just about everybody present made some kind of effort to move their Menno bodies to the music, odd as it may have felt for some.

If we are indeed connected, changing one another through our relationship, what kinds of waves of love does a comforter themed disco party send through the branches of CDC and beyond?

I’ve asked three other people to help us further exercise our seventh sense by giving brief pictures of how CDC intersects with their lives.  We can think of these stories as shining a light on the trellis on which we are all growing.

We’ll start with Jerry N and Camp Friedenswald, a CDC owned camp in southern Michigan.


Last October about 20 of us joined 20 folks from Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship for a guided tour of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.  We met at round tables for lunch to discuss the experience and hear how each congregation was addressing racial justice issues.  The event was supported by a Reign of God grant from CDC, which basically paid half of all the expenses.  Megan S M was one of the participants.


One of the committees of CDC is called the Missional Church committee.  Phil H has been serving on that committee and has been doing some thinking about church planting.


And I’ll end with a story of my own.  This Wednesday I drove up to Bluffton in northwest Ohio to attend a pastor peer meeting for CDC pastors.  We get together once a month.  It takes pretty much a whole day including travel, but it’s one of the things that supports and sustains me.  During the sharing time one of the pastors talked about why she missed the previous gathering.  This is Wanda Stopher, pastor of First Mennonite in Bluffton, whose daughter Erin and husband Perry Leatherman attended here for a while.  This story involves another daughter.

Wanda had been at the hospital with her daughter who had decided to donate a kidney, to be used where most needed.  She had two, and she wanted to donate one, to whoever might need one.  Wanda was both incredibly proud of the moral courage of her young adult daughter, and grieving for the loss of this part of her daughter.  At one point, she told us, she was in the hospital elevator with a man carrying a container and she realized this was the container that was going to hold her daughter’s kidney.  Wanda felt compelled to accompany the container as much as she was allowed, to bless the container once the kidney was inside it and give it a pastoral benediction as it departed for a long trip to California where its new host awaited.

A seventh sense could explore any of the levels of relational connections that make something like this possible.  The medical knowledge and technological wonders involved.  The communication and transportationsystems.

And what kind of community is it that forms a person who comes to this kind of decision?  What other branches did she witness abiding faithfully in the vine, producing good fruit?  How were they all held up by a trellis that welcomed each new stretch of growth?

And now that we have heard these stories, family stories from sisters and brothers sharing the same vine, how do we respond?

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus taught.  “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…As the Divine parent has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

Baptism in the New Year | January 8

Texts: Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9

This is seven brief meditations on the lectionary scriptures, baptism, the start of a new year, and our family’s Christmas vacation travels to and from Kansas.  Not necessarily in that order.

1. When presented with the fact of the matter, Columbus Mennonite young people grow curious as to why we’re told so little about Jesus’ growing up years. He’s born, he’s visited by shepherds and magi, and then boom, he’s a 30 year old getting baptized. Christmas is barely over, the curbs of Oakland Park Ave were lined with dried out Christmas trees for pick up just a few days ago,  and now, boom, it’s Baptism of our Lord Sunday.  The story of Jesus in the temple at age 12 talking with the elders hardly feels like enough to fill the gap.  What was he doing all those years, anyway?  It’s hard to imagine that learning the carpentry trade with his step-father Joseph, and studying Torah occupied every waking hour of his time.  So how do you get from the baby in the manger to the man who came to John by the Jordan River and requested baptism?  What all went into that young person, that prepared him for the life he was about to lead?  What experiences? what struggles? what relationships? what disappointments?  what revelations? Inquiring minds would like to know.

2. When you pack your swimsuits for a family trip to Kansas in the dead of winter you might as well use them. Having not used them, you figure it would be fun to stay at a hotel with an indoor pool on your way home.  When your two main criteria for finding a hotel online are a) has an indoor pool, and b) as cheap as possible, you know you’re rolling the dice.  After twelve hours of driving, you get to the hotel, looking forward to sharing a compartment bigger than the inside of a Toyota Sienna .  The desk attendant tries unsuccessfully to convince you that double beds are the same size as queen beds, and you head to your room to unload your stuff, and choose which double bed you would like to squeeze who into.  You’ve asked a different attendant if she could deliver a cot for the fifth family member.  She agrees to investigate, and come up to let you know either way.  Twenty minutes later you go down to find her and she informs you they are all in use.  You sleep somewhat decently and get up, excited for the pool and hot tub.  You’ve made a deal with your partner that if she gets the kids dressed and in the pool while you go to the workout room, you’ll swim with them the rest of the time while she relaxes and reads.

When you ask a third attendant where the workout room is he informs you it’s down the hall but four out of the five machines are broken, which, upon inspection, they definitely are in multiple senses of the word.  After a decent workout on that singular machine you change and come down to the pool area.  You notice that the hot tub is surrounded by a rudimentary plywood fence, empty of water, and clearly off limits.

But the pool, the pool is filled with water and functioning nicely.  The water is a pleasant temperature, you and your children are the only people in there for a solid hour and a half, and you have a blast.  You swim around, you play games, you have an overall delightful time.

As you load up the van to complete the journey, you ponder what a shabby situation that was, a series of unfortunate events.  Except for the water.    It’s all the kids are talking about.  Somehow the water of that pool redeems the entire experience.  It’s the second day of 2017.  You and your household have been immersed in those overly chlorinated baptismal waters.  And you’ve emerged, born anew in time, surrounded by the voices of the Beloved.  The playful spirit that hovered over that water goes with you as you drive home into a brand new year.

3. Sociologists Malina and Rohrbaugh estimate that in first century Palestine one third of the population died before the age of six, and only 25% of the population lived past their mid-twenties. If this is the case, then a 30 year Jesus at his baptism would have already witnessed plenty of life. Most of his would-be peers have already died, and a good percentage of the people he walked among would have been younger than him. Women married young, soon after they were able to conceive children.  Mary, Jesus’ mother, is present when Jesus is on the cross, fortunate to have lived into her late-40s, beating the odds, but it comes at the cost of having to watch her adult child die an excruciating death.  We hear nothing of Joseph after the birth narratives, very likely because, having married at an older age, he was dead by the time Jesus began his ministry.

With an average life expectancy of about 79 years in the US these days, and historically low infant mortality rates, it’s hard to imagine how much early death people witnessed in the ancient world.  A calendar turned to a new year isn’t near as threatening for us and, even if you feel that you’re getting up in years, you’ve still had a pretty full life, all things considered.

4. I wonder how the Jews in exile in Babylon responded when they first heard the words of the prophet Isaiah. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” So far, so good.  Lord knows the nations need justice, ours, and others.  Then this: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench…He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”

Here’s the problem.  How will this supposed servant bring about justice if she won’t cry out or make her voice heard in the street?  There’s a lot that needs shouted from the roof-tops, and there’s a whole lot of harmful noise that needs countered with constructive words and actions.  Public words and actions.  Babylon doesn’t just let give up its captives without a fight.

And yet, the kind of fight this particular servant engages in seems to be with a different kind of power.  The kind of power that can hold a bruised reed without breaking it, that can shelter a dim wick just about ready to go out, but keep its flame going.  It’s a method of tenderness and attentiveness.

I think of aunts and uncles, showing kindness and generosity to their nieces and nephews hungry for role models.  I think of the people who aren’t out on the streets but who cooked the meal that the protestors ate before they headed out, and had the place clean before they returned.  I think of people in power working behind the scenes to change minds and shape policy in a way that honors the dignity of all people.  Servants whose names don’t make the headlines.

I think of those hotel cleaners, who we didn’t meet, making barely over minimum wage, who, after we were packed are merrily on our way, arrived at our room.  Used towels still wet, bed covers in disarray.  Going about the work of cleaning up and setting the place right again, creating spaces of hospitality in a less than ideal environment.  Isaiah says: “She will not grow faint or be crushed until she has established justice in the earth.”

5. “Baptism is for those who are of the age of accountability and who freely request baptism on the basis of their response to Jesus Christ in faith.” Thus reads the final sentence of Article 11 in our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, on the topic of Baptism. Those who came to be called Mennonites, after the leader Menno Simons, were first called Anabaptists, those who baptize again, because of their practice of re-baptizing adults who had been baptized as infants, the common practice of the day, but who desired to make a public expression of faith as an adult.  The belief of the Anabaptists was that nobody is really born a Christian.  You can’t choose your parents, can’t choose the circumstances of your biological birth, your physical identity; but you can choose the authority that you wish to live under, your heavenly parent, so to speak, your spiritual identity.  Baptism is a symbol of spiritual birth, birth by choice, born a second time as Jesus told Nicodemus.  The manger scene of Christmas birth gets replaced with the waters of spiritual birth.

It’s an identity that is chosen when one has reached, as the confession says, “the age of accountability.”  Mennonites have always been somewhat age conscious about the baptism process.  We want people to have had some life experience, role models and mentors, some struggles, maybe even some revelations that inform this decision.  And so we usually begin inviting people to start considering baptism in their early teen years, and extend the invitation all the way up with no upper age limit.  It’s an open invitation.

Like the decision to get married or have children, one is never really fully prepared for this.  If one waited until one was completely ready to do it, understood fully all the implications of the decision, one might never get started.

One of the pitfalls of our tradition is that by placing an emphasis on the human initiative of baptism we can underemphasize the Divine gift of grace that it is.  That, despite the shabbiness of our lives, and the series of unfortunate events we seem to find ourselves and our world cycling through, the waters of baptism are held out to us as a gift.  The waters remind us that we always have been and always will be Beloved children of God.  And the Spirit that hovered over those waters journeys with us wherever we go.

6. The further west one drives into Kansas along Interstate 70, the more open spaces one encounters. Towns get smaller, and further apart. The sky opens up to a full half sphere above you as the ground levels and settles into an imperceptible slope upward, toward the Rocky Mountains, still hundreds of miles away.  As if anticipating the temptation of the average driver to fall into a stupor of mind-dulling boredom as she cruises at 75 miles an hour across the prairie, a large billboard asks the driver to consider the question:  “If you die today where will you spend eternity?”

It’s a well placed billboard, given the dual facts that a) one is driving at 75 miles per hour and, although odds are still in one’s favor of making it through the day alive, this does temporarily increase the opportunities for an untimely death.  b) it’s the middle of Kansas and there’s not a whole lot of other things calling for one’s attention.  Despite its valiant attempts to get one pondering the question, there is a strong temptation for the mind to go in a different direction.  One wonders who’s paying the rent for that billboard and reckons that they probably think they’re getting a pretty good deal, since it’s hard to put a price on a soul saved from eternal damnation.  But mostly one feels a surge of frustration for fear based messages so often associated with religion.  This is not helping out one bit the church’s already poor public image.

If one were to have a mind to do it, one could get a group together, pool some money, and rent the next billboard down the highway, so that after drivers see “If you die today where will you spend eternity?” they would see something like “Since you’re alive today, how will you act justly and love mercy?”

7. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe a similar scene at Jesus’ baptism. After Jesus goes down into the waters, he emerges, as if from a womb, and hears what he has been named. A voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Christians have seen in this declaration echoes of Isaiah 42, “This is my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”  Jesus hears this identity of belovedness spoken over him, and it directly connects to being the servant who brings justice to the nations, who tenderly, but persistently, lights the way.

Aside from the birth narratives and a couple stories of his early years, we don’t know much about the life of Jesus at this point.  Before any miracle, before any teaching, before anything he does, Jesus is told who he is, which is a gift.  And it is out of this identity as Beloved, that Jesus then is able to teach all those he encounters that they, too are beloved.  Whenever and wherever he encounters the dying, the youthful, the sick and injured, the aging, the bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks, he proclaims through word and deed that, even if they don’t know it yet, they too are beloved children of God.  They too are servants of God, whether quietly or out in the street, making space for the way of justice.  The waters of baptism offer a chosen, and a given identity, that we are all children in the Beloved Community.  You need not wait until death and eternity to live this, because, miracle of miracles, you are alive today.

Christmas meditation | 25 December 2016

Text: Luke 2:1-20  

Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth famously begins with a decree from an emperor.  The emperor.  There can only be one emperor at a time.  There’s only one seat at the top of the pyramid.  The Caesar, Octavian, who went by Caesar Augustus, which translates as Caesar, Most Revered.

From Rome, Caesar Augustus makes a declaration.  Luke begins: “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

The purpose of such a census was not to see how many families had fallen below the poverty line so the Romans would know how far to extend the social safety net.  It was to update the tax rolls.  It was a way of extending control over peoples, who were counted, head by head, reminding them who was in charge.  You can’t hide from Caesar.

When Caesar Most Revered makes a declaration, it moves its way down the pyramid, each layer of the hierarchy bound to carry out its demands.  Governors must oversee registration in their regions.  Local authorities must set up and implement the census.  Army commanders must see that their soldiers are keeping the peace.  And households, however distant they may be from Rome, must rearrange their priorities in order to fulfill their legal obligations.

The emperor declares, and the world bends toward his will.

This is the opening statement of the story.  It causes a peasant couple, Joseph and Mary, to leave their residence of Nazareth and go to Bethlehem.  To have their heads counted.  To get their names on the list of the subjects of the kingdom.

It’s here, in Bethlehem, where Mary gives birth to her firstborn, a son, Jesus, and wraps him up in bands of cloth, and places him in what was likely a feed trough for animals, a manger.

When Mary’s son grows up, he will speak often of a kingdom.  He will tell stories about “The kingdom of God,” say that it is already coming into the world.  He will present a different way that contrasts with the kingdom of Rome.  A different shape of being.

At times he will declare that the pyramid scheme of Caesar ought to be flipped completely on its head.  He will say: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; instead, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all” (Mark 10:42-44).

At times he will declare that the shape of being looks more like a strong gravitational center, that draws people in.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  “When I am lifted up I will draw all people to me” (John 12:32).

At times he will declare that the shape of what is coming into being has an abundance of centers.  He will speak of seeds, extravagantly flung across the landscape, which grow and multiply who-knows how many times – 30, 60, 100 fold.  No registration required.  He will speak of the coming of the Spirit that will guide the community, a tongue of flame in the mouth of all those who yield to the Spirit.

Mary’s son will declare all these things.  But let’s face it, they carry none of the weight of the declaration of an emperor.  There’s no enforcement mechanism for laws of love and mercy.  There is no compulsion in the declarations Jesus will make.  Those who follow them do so with a radical freedom.  You simply don’t have to do it.  The only power this new kingdom carries is that it appeals to the deepest truth of our humanity, the most beautiful aspects of our being.  But it’s easily ignored.  The Christ is as vulnerable as a child.

The gospel presents the nearly-impossible-to-believe idea that the scene of the infant among the animals in Bethlehem carries with it more lasting significance, more of the Real, than any scene in the courts of Rome.  Who would believe such a thing?  It would certainly be difficult for the emperor to believe.  It would be hard to believe for 21st century Americans who have achieved feats of power Caesar never even imagined possible.

So the people who get the first birth announcement, who are the first to bear witness to the shape of this possibility, are those who themselves had no stake in maintaining the current arrangement of things, who knew a thing or two about hanging out with animals, sleeping on the ground, unable to fulfill any of their people’s purity laws, perhaps not even noteworthy enough to be counted in a census, insignificant religiously and politically.  Off the grid.  The angels come to the shepherds and give the heavenly counter decree which will be for all the world: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people.”


Alternative story lines | 18 December 2016 | Advent 4

Texts: Luke: 1:46-55; Matthew 1:18-25  

Alternative story line.

Matthew 1, beginning with verse 18:

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* didn’t take place.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, was a righteous man.  Joseph was a righteous man, a man of commitment, a man of honor.  Joseph, a righteous man, a man of duty to the law of his people.

Mary, found to be with child not from Joseph.  Joseph, found out.  Righteousness demanded obedience to the law and the law was clear, as firm as stone, faithfully transcribed through the generations, read publicly weekly for all to hear who wished to follow the way of righteousness.

The fifth book of the Torah, the 22nd chapter of Deuteronomy, regarding the young woman given in marriage, from her father’s house to her husband.  If evidence is found of the woman’s lack of sexual purity, the law states: “then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 22:21).

Mary, a pregnant unmarried young woman.  Joseph, a righteous man.  Not a hateful or violent man.  But a righteous man.  A God-fearing man.  Unable to see another way.  Unable to counter the obligations.  At first fundamentally divided about the way forward, then with a heavy heart, then, joined by other righteous men, with a growing sense of righteousness, Joseph carried out the teachings of the Scripture.  His honor restored.  Evil purged from their midst.  Now, the birth of Jesus the Messiah didn’t take place.

Alternative story line.

Matthew 1, beginning with verse 18:

18 Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

And so this is what he did.  He dismissed her, quietly.  Quietly he dismissed her from the pledge of marriage.  Quietly he sent her back to her father’s house without accompaniment, and without condemnation.  Quietly Joseph moved on, went back to his life, back to work.  Quietly Joseph eventually found another young woman to marry and quietly they lived their lives together in the hills of Judea.

Quietly Mary returned to her father’s house.  Quietly she gave birth to the fatherless child.  Quietly she held him, sang him lullabies.  “Quiet, you must keep quiet my child.  Don’t cry out, don’t raise a fuss, don’t cause a commotion, don’t stand out in a crowd.  You must live quietly my child.”

Quietly Mary raised the child with the help of her family.  Quietly the child grew to become a boy, a young man, an adult.  Quietly he lived in the shadows, stayed away from large crowds.  Quietly he observed the world, trying not to let the world observe him.  Quietly he lived, quietly he prayed, quietly he died.

Alternative story line.

Matthew 1, beginning with verse 18:

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’

And that’s what they did.  They named him Emmanuel, God with us.  God with us was born in the time of King Herod, in the town of Bethlehem.  When Herod learned of the birth of God with us he set out to destroy him, and so Mary and Joseph and God with us became refugees, fleeing, finding sanctuary in Egypt, the same place their ancestors had been enslaved.  Nights, Mary would cradle God with us and sing the poetry and prayers of her people, adding her own lyrical twists and turns: “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for God has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is the name.
50 Mercy is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
51 The Holy One has shown strength with his arm;
has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 The Generous One has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 God has helped servant Israel,
in remembrance of mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

After Herod’s death God with us returned with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth, in Galilee.  God with us grew, an adult, and found his way through desert into the waters of baptism under the hand of John the Baptizer.  A dove, and the sky spoke, “My beloved Son.”  God with us headed further into the desert, facing demons, rejecting temptations having only the veneer of beauty.

God with us walked alongside fisherfolk and wealthy; collectors of the imperial tax – collaborators, and revolutionaries; religious purists and lepers ineligible for official worship.  Around God with us blind became seers, women became students and disciples, peasants became inheritors of the kin-dom of God.  God with us preferred parables over propositions.  God with us enacted mother Mary’s fierce lullaby, scattering the proud, bringing the powerful down from their thrones, lifting up the lowly.  Teaching: blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the merciful, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Righteousness, in the form of justice.

God with us caused quite a stir.  This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.

Pilate put God with us on trial.  God with us put Pilate on trial without saying a word.  Quietly, at least that once.

God with us was deemed not fit to live with us.

God with us put creation on notice, that life will have its way with death.

It is still rumored that God is with us.

Alternative story line.

Mary is an enslaved young woman from the Yoruba tribe of West Africa.  She survives the Middle Passage to the Americas in the 18th century, is purchased, and moved to a plantation in Virginia.  She has no sexual contact with any of the enslaved men but is found to be with child.  She gives birth to a light skinned daughter.  Nights, she cradles her child and sings the poetry and prayers of her people.

Alternative story line.

Joseph is a middle aged man in Ohio.  One year his son comes home from college and tells his father he has always felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body.  He will be transitioning to a she.  Now this father was a righteous man.  A righteous man.  A God-fearing man.  Not a violent or a hateful man, but a righteous man deeply committed to the Scriptures.  Years later he hears the faintest whisper, coming from outside and inside at the same time: “Do not be afraid.”

Alternative story line.

Jesus is born the day after tomorrow on the snowy plains of Standing Rock in the Dakotas.  The Lakota infant is wrapped in a zero degree sleeping bag donated anonymously by an elderly woman from Alabama. The tribes already gathered from the north, the south, the east, and the west come to see the child and offer prayers of blessing, and song.  A pipeline construction worker, a state official, and an oil investor hear of the news and come bearing gifts.

All this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan:

Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing

All this took place to fulfill what was spoken through the Sufi poet Rumi:

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

All this took place to fulfill what was written by the Pulitzer prize author Annie Dillard: “What I have been after all along was not an explanation, but a picture” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 182).

All this took place to fulfill what was written by Julian of Norwich who won no prizes or awards in her life of hardship. “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

All this took place to fulfill, to full fill, to fill full, to enter the empty. When will we feel full?  Why are we fearful?

All this took place to fill full the container of time, overflowing now.  To testify that life is having its way with death.  To give the dream in which the angel says, “Do not be afraid.”  To wake us up, assured that the scandal of love in which we participate is conceived of the Holy Spirit.”